As President George W. Bush leaves on his first trip to Africa Monday, I am reminded of a trip I made to the continent in 1985 with his father, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. Massive drought and famine were raging in the Sahel region of West Africa at the time. Thousands of people and farm animals were dying, and most men, women and children were spending their waking moments desperately searching for food and water.
Africans were calling for help, and then-President Ronald Reagan sent Bush on a fact-finding mission to West Africa. I was one of a number of development specialists who accompanied him. On this visit, the vice president did not just rely on briefings from U.S. diplomats and highly placed local officials. He went out of his way to engage with — and learn from — people from all walks of life. He spoke with the people at the local level in an effort to get a firsthand account of the enormous odds they faced. Bush listened, and inspired hope. Eventually the U.S. government brought substantive emergency and development assistance to the Sahel nations.
Today, Africa still faces many challenges. Some of these are as familiar as the famine we saw in the Sahel nearly 20 years ago. Others are problems that were barely on anyone’s radar screen in 1985, such as the AIDS crisis. But, as it was in 1985, so it is today: In helping Africa’s people cope with the problems they face, the United States and the rest of the world need to seek ideas from the people on the ground. On his trip to Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, Botswana and South Africa, President George W. Bush will seek to build a better partnership, not just with the people of these five countries, but with the continent as a whole. He will be aiming to counter the long-standing complaint that the United States pays little attention to African countries beyond the desire for access to natural resources such as oil.
As someone who has lived and worked in Africa, and focused nearly four decades of work on the continent, my suggestion to the president is very simple: Listen closely and learn a lot. Often, we Americans tend to think of how different sub-Saharan African countries are from ours. But those differences are minor. Africa’s people want the same things we want: peace and security, a decent education for their children, health care — a better future. But, unlike those of us in the United States, Africans have far fewer means to achieve these everyday goals.
This is where the United States can make a big difference. People in Africa have faith in America because they realize that we have plenty of experience in managing diversity, getting people from different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds to work for the common good. Although we don’t always realize it, Africans need these same skills in dealing with the challenges of nation-building. An active engagement by the United States can help make this happen in such countries as Sudan, Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone. For decades, we have remained committed to helping bring peace in the Mideast. We have engaged in ending bloodshed in Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Africans deserve no less. And, in this present reality, that means the United States should put troops on the ground in Liberia to prevent the continuation of bloodshed. But this issue should not overshadow other aspects of Bush’s trip.
In recent years, there have been signs that helping Africans in their struggle against poverty is not just a moral issue but enlightened self-interest. A case in point is the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has increased access to the U.S. market for African businesses that manufacture textiles and other basic products. The Commerce Department reports that this measure is already having a positive impact in several African countries, creating job opportunities. The $15-billion aid package proposed by the Bush administration — and enacted by Congress — to help fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean is a very good demonstration of American leadership. We can take similar measures to help Africans find solutions to the civil wars that have plagued the continent for years, destroyed millions of lives, and drained resources that should be devoted to education and health care.
By C. Payne Lucas, Africare President Emeritus
This editorial was first published in Newsday on July 4, 2003.